When John D. Rockefeller was asked what quality he was willing to pay for the most when hiring employees, he responded without hesitation, “The ability to get along with people.” It is the lack of this ability to get along with people that makes difficult people difficult. Every congregation has a few people like this. In different places, difficult people may come in different shapes and sizes, but they all share this common trait: They are difficult!
As a pastor, I found getting along with these few people to be one of my greatest challenges. Learning to deal with them effectively required me, first of all, to face my own unrealistic expectations of them.
I expected these people to be spiritual rather than carnal. However, through the years I have come to realize that believers are more likely to be carnal than they are to be spiritual. This has always been true of the church. After all, most of the books of the New Testament address carnal issues among first century Christians. Had these believers been spiritual, these books would be missing from our Bible.
Second, I expected these difficult people, along with every other person in the church, to love me. Somehow I thought I was failing in my ministry if I could not earn the love of every person in the church. This, too, was another unrealistic expectation.
There is no church where the pastor is loved by everyone. At any given moment, 10 to 20 percent of any congregation would prefer to have someone else as their pastor. Learning to accept this as normal frees the pastor from the bondage of compulsively seeking to be loved by every person in the church.
God finally brought me to the place where I realized it would be nice if everyone in the church loved me, but it is not necessary. Learning to feel comfortable with the fact that there would always be a small group of difficult people in any church I pastored who probably would never love me was a very significant, but difficult, step for me to take in my pastoral growth.
Lowering your expectations of people will make you more comfortable with difficult people, but you still must be able to manage them. Dealing with difficult people forces you to practice self-discipline. This is the practical wisdom of James 1:19-20: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (NKJV).
Remember, people have become difficult because being difficult has worked for them. Basically they are fearful of close personal relationships that would require them to be emotionally vulnerable. So their behavior is designed to push your buttons and pull your strings–to put distance between them and others.
As a young pastor, I naively thought these people were only difficult to get along with at church. Then one day the Lord helped me to see they were just as difficult to get along with at home and at work. I never will forget these thoughts He injected into my mind: “You only have to deal with these people a very few hours of the week. Be glad you aren’t married to them or don’t have to live with them.”
The Bible gives us some practical guidelines for managing difficult people. The first are found in Matthew 18:15-17 and Ephesians 4:15. Both of these passages instruct us to confront difficult people privately and in love. Take the initiative; but in doing so, be sure you are fair, firm and friendly.
Being fair involves treating the difficult person the way you would treat anyone else in the church. Don’t make exceptions for them. If you know you are treating them fairly, it should help you be lovingly firm in the way you deal with them.
All of us have a tendency to be flexible with others. This works well with people who are willing to be flexible with you, but, often, difficult people are difficult because they are so rigid. So once you know you are being fair with them, be firm with them.
Some people have to be angry before they can be firm, but this is unnecessary. Once you know you are being fair, you will discover people respect you more and are more likely to comply with your correction if you are pleasant in the process.
Many difficult people are basically angry people. In most cases you will be unaware of the history involved in their anger. The first three types in the following list fall into this category.
Here are nine types of difficult people along with some practical, biblical ways of managing them:
1. The Sherman tank. These are intimidating people. They are so bold and blunt in their approach that they tend to take you off guard. They must be confronted in a firm and friendly way.
After they have presented their antagonistic view, respond by saying something such as, “I have a different point of view, but let me hear more about the way the situation looks to you.”
When the person is finished, simply respond by saying, “In my opinion…” then present your view. If the person interrupts you, call the person by name and say, “You interrupted me.”
2. The sniper. Often these people will make accusing insinuations against you in meetings. Avoid the temptation to take them on in front of the group. Confront them alone.
Let them know you thought they were digging at you and ask them, “Did you mean it that way?” If they attempt to dismiss their remarks as a joke, agree that the joke was funny, but then add something such as, “But I thought I heard a dig in the tone of your voice.”
If circumstances require you to confront the person in front of the group, don’t take him or her on directly. Say something such as, “Do all of you agree with what was just said?” This relieves you of being further involved and allows others in the group to confront the person for you.
3. The land mine. These people frighten you so that you will tread softly when you are around them. Usually they themselves are frightened or frustrated.
If you find their words or tone of voice offensive, simply establish eye contact with them and say, “I want to hear what you have to say, but not in this way.” Then invite them into your office. Sit down with them. Get the facts straight and offer some practical help, if possible.
4. The waffler. These people cannot make up their own minds. They listen to what you have to say and seem to be in agreement, but they don’t follow through. In the end, you will probably have to make a decision for them by saying something such as, “It might be better if you would…”
5. The crybaby. These people are complainers. Usually they feel powerless in their personal lives.
Actively listen to them. Then paraphrase what they have said to you so they will know you have heard them–but don’t agree with them. And don’t apologize for not agreeing with them.
Get them involved with solutions to their problems. When they go on and on, don’t be afraid to say: “Look, Jim, in a half-hour I have something else I have to do. How long do you think this discussion will last?”
6. The wet blanket. These are not happy people. They feel their lives are under the control of people who can’t be trusted. You must confront their “yes, but…” attitude with a positive statement of your own.
Get them to define for you the absolute worst thing they think can happen, but don’t let them drag you there. Be ready to take positive action in spite of what they say. Remember, other people in their lives have had to learn to discount their messages of doom and gloom.
7. The clam. Their silence makes others uncomfortable. The silence may indicate a number of things going on in their lives. However, silence in a meeting can be paralyzing. So say something–engage these types of people in small talk. Talk to them about their lack of conversation and challenge them to express themselves
8. The bulldozer. These people bowl you over with their ideas. You will need to describe for them what you propose to do. Then, when they have overwhelmed you with their often accurate but irrelevant information, innocently thank them for it and ask, “Do you have any problem with what we are proposing to do?” Usually they will go along. They just want to be heard.
9. The nice guy/gal. These are people who always agree. At the time they say it, they mean it. However, they have gone along with what you have asked them to do because they are afraid to be honest with you. So you will have to make it easy for these people to raise their issues with you. They usually respond well to solutions that are free from conflict.
Many times managing difficult people can tell you as much about yourself as it does about them. To foster your own growth, write down the things about these people that annoy you. Ask yourself why you find these things so annoying. How do you usually respond to them? How would you like to respond?
Remember the guidelines in Matthew 18:15-17 and Ephesians 4:15. Don’t try to manage difficult people by avoiding them. Take the direct approach. As you put yourself more in control of situations that used to be in control of you, commend yourself for managing difficult people with less difficulty. And remember, no one does it perfectly.